Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being

In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise: Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff. After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point. Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme: I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them. I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance: Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.” Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days. I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s...

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Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense
Apr02

Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense

It is finished. My final defense was last Wednesday—and I passed! This is a milestone, and milestones are to be blogged about, right? The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t been long enough for it to sink in yet. It’s interesting, this whole final defense thing. For years, you’re going, going, jumping through each hoop that’s presented along the way. From the very start, you’re anticipating the end, which will one day come. You survive classes, give numerous presentations, pass your prelim. Years pass by, then the long-awaited final defense comes… and goes. And then… you’re done. Done? Huh… Okay, awesome, I’m done! That’s it, I guess… I have a Ph.D. Meanwhile, you proceed to announce on facebook that you passed your final defense and everyone can call you doctor now. Friends and family shower you with congratulatory remarks. It’s wonderful. But somehow it still hasn’t quite hit that I really do have a Ph.D. For real. I guess I thought I would feel a greater sense of relief and finality. Of course, I’m happy. But it’s a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done. Overall, I’ve had a wonderful time in grad school. Perhaps this is easy to say now that it’s all over. But really… I’ve lucked out. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but anyone who’s gone through grad school knows that there are a number of factors that are just outside of your control. Many of those things fell into place really nicely for me. I’m really thankful for that. My labmates have become my good friends—we have so much fun together both inside and outside the lab. My adviser is a down-to-earth person who has been supportive of my nontraditional career plans. Not all labs are as friendly, and not all advisers are as encouraging and supportive, to say the least. And perhaps most importantly, my project has cooperated with me. Even after I fell out of love with my research, we were able to maintain a good working relationship. So, what’s next? That’s the question of the hour! The good news is that I’ve been offered a fellowship for a 12-month Masters in journalism program at the University of Illinois. This is fantastic because I wasn’t really interested in taking out loans to get a degree that I don’t necessarily need to be a science writer. But, what can I say, I’m a sucker for getting paid to go to school! And I think I’ll have a lot of fun developing my skills as a reporter and writer. There are core classes that every student...

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2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures
Jan09

2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures

For the past four years, I’ve kicked off the New Year knowing more or less what the next year was going to hold: I’ll be in the lab, working on my project, hoping for good data that will lead to papers that will lead me one step closer to graduation. But this year is different. My defense date is almost scheduled in March (waiting for one last professor to confirm), and in May, I will walk across a stage and receive my Ph.D. diploma. While this makes me extremely excited, it’s also bittersweet. It’s exciting, well, because the end of grad school means the start of something new—finally! But it’s also a tiny bit sad because, as much as I’ve complained about it, I’ve enjoyed being a grad student and have made some really great friends who I’m going to miss. I know those who are in the thick of grad school will beg to differ, but it’s a pretty sweet deal, being paid to get a degree and all. I’ve learned a ton, and although day to day I haven’t noticed it, I’ve grown a lot in five years. It can also be a bit frightening, if I let it be. When several years of your life are spent doing one thing, and one thing only (or mostly), it’s a little unsettling to not know what you’ll be doing in five months time. Despite all that, I’m more excited than scared. I’m looking forward to an adventure-filled 2012. I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I am all about making a list of goals and dreams I hope to see fulfilled in the next year. Those two things may sound the same, but they don’t to me. It feels much less restrictive and more freeing to say, “Here are my dreams for the New Year” instead of, “Here are my New Year’s resolutions,” so that’s what I go with. Here’s what I dream of accomplishing in the New Year: Be intentional and patient with myself as I grow as a reporter and a writer. As a child, I remember getting frustrated with myself when I saw older kids doing stuff I just wasn’t old enough to know how to do—like write in cursive, do algebra or ride without training wheels. Sometimes I feel that way as a writer. I look around and see what other writers, who have 20 years of experience, are doing, and wonder why I’m not out there doing that. But that’s silly. And I know it is, but for some reason that’s how I’ve always approached life. In my frustration, I...

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The light at the end of the tunnel
Dec11

The light at the end of the tunnel

I’ve been a bit spotty with blogging recently, so I apologize. I’ve been pretty tied up with collecting and analyzing data for what will be the last (I repeat, last) chapter of my dissertation. It is a wonderful feeling to be close to the end— I can’t overstate that!! Anyone who has gone through grad school can probably relate to the feeling of utter elation you get when you realize that you will in fact graduate with your Ph.D. in the forseeable future. The end is near! For those fledgling graduate students out there, you may be a bit jealous of this feeling I have. But I just have to say— stick it out and soon enough you too will know what it feels like to be almost done! Wow, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post. Not to be overly dramatic, but throughout the first several years of grad school, it often feels like it’s never going to end. There are ups and downs and more downs (see earlier post about how I fell out of love with research). The thing about a Ph.D. program is it’s so nebulous when you will finish. It’s not like undergrad where you check off all the boxes, pass all your classes and walk across the stage to get your diploma. It’s hard to explain that to relatives who assume you’ll have a month-long Christmas break since you’re still a student. No, it doesn’t quite work like that actually… So when it finally hits you that the end is near, it’s an incredible feeling. Especially, I feel, for someone like me, for whom the end of grad school is the end of research, once and for all, and the beginning of doing what I really love. For those who don’t know, I’ll be diving head first into a science writing career as soon as I graduate. I’m so glad I’ve found what I love, and the thought of waking up and doing my dream job every day (instead of squeezing it in on nights and weekends and wherever there’s extra time) makes me really excited. I’m already starting to plan for my next steps. I’m applying for another round of science writing internships, as well as the AAAS Mass Media Fellows Program, which gives a select group of science students the opportunity to work as a science journalist for a major media outlet over the summer. I’m also preparing my application for journalism school, since I’m toying with the idea of getting more formal journalism training before launching a full-blown science writing career. Some science writers say the formal...

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The Quest for a Passionate and Purposeful PhD
Nov30

The Quest for a Passionate and Purposeful PhD

This guest post was written by Selina Wang, PhD. When I became a “PhD“ rather than “PhD candidate”, I couldn’t get the question “Now, what?” out of my head. It reminded me of the feeling I had when being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as a five-year-old. Except I wasn’t five and I was supposed to be smart and have a respectful answer that validated the three letters that were now attached to my name. I was fearful to step into this unfamiliar territory. In addition, the same excitement I felt about my area of research when I first started the PhD program was now accompanied by the additional baggage of skepticism and confusion. I was about to face some huge energy barriers and to anticipate high entropy – something called the post-doctoral life and beyond. As I explored post-doctoral opportunities, I felt a little lost, sort of directionless and almost underwhelmed by this supposedly-one-of-the-greatest-accomplishments-of-mine-so-far.  Industry, government or academe?  Not sure.  A job that pays better than a graduate student’s stipend?  I hope so. I started to wonder how many of us that attend graduate school with a crystal-clear view of our future career direction maintain that view upon graduation. You know, despite how clear your NIR tubes are and how your crystals grow bigger and faster than your labmates’. I, like many, had an incredible experience in graduate school. I was in love with doing research and could have stayed in the program forever if I was allowed to (and if I had won a lottery so money was no object). I had a strong sense of purpose – to discover the unknown, to tell people about things they didn’t yet know, to satisfy my own curiosity. I was surrounded by individuals who cared about the same things as I do, including an assiduous PI who started his tenure-track faculty position the same year I started my PhD program. They understood my dorky jokes, granted that they didn’t have the sense of humor to laugh at most of them. It was a safe environment to learn and to do research – which was my job. Five years quickly flew by (with the exception of the year of my qualifying-exam). I had to move on to a post-doc position, though the idea of being a post-doctoral researcher never excited me. Why give me a PhD if you don’t think I am ready “as is”? At the end of my two-year post-doc gig, I felt my skills were sharpened and I started to feel an itch to get out into the real working world. I had a clearer idea of my strengths and...

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You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world
Aug11

You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world

Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this: So, what did you study in college? Chemistry. Wow. I hated chemistry! You’re in grad school now, that’s cool… What are you studying? Chemistry. Huh. So… what are you gonna do after you get your Ph.D.? Become a writer. (Blank stare).  Hmm… how does that work? At this point, I go on to explain how I’m super-psyched to use my background in chemistry to communicate science in fun and down-to-earth ways so that anyone can understand. I’m sure other non-traditional careers folks out there have had conversations like this. I suppose blank stares are to be expected, since we’re going after careers that are not typical for people with our background. Before I stumbled into the world of non-traditional science careers, I certainly didn’t have the framework to grasp that you could take your science degree and waltz into a seemingly unrelated career path. I’m happy to be pursuing something that I love, even if it’s atypical. Grad school equips you with a bunch of transferable skills that you can take with you wherever your heart (and job opportunities) lead. So you should never feel boxed in. Like so many of the people I’ve written profiles about for this blog, I love pursuing my passion! I have never been as excited about a future career prospect as I have been since discovering science writing. Most people find my non-traditional career goals interesting. Some wonder if I feel I’m wasting my time getting a Ph.D. in chemistry. I tell them I don’t feel grad school was a waste at all. I’ve learned a ton, both about science and about myself. I’ve grown and matured and am better prepared to confront the challenges of my future career than I would’ve been straight out of college. That’s not to say grad school is for everyone, or that if I’d do it all again if I could go back knowing I wanted to be a science writer from the start… I’d like to think I’ve left an impression on some people I’ve talked to (or perhaps other students out there who read this blog), and that some have walked away encouraged to think outside of the box and let themselves dream a little,...

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